Washington’s last “humanitarian” mission in Vietnam began with a great fanfare. Both sides of Congress joined hands in granting Ford $405 million to provide a safe haven in the United States for the estimated 150,000 “loyal” Vietnamese who fled their country with the final defeat of American imperialism and its puppet regime.
But more than a month after their evacuation, most of the refugees are still crammed in makeshift tent cities or hastily patched army barracks at camps scattered from Florida to Guam.
The processing of refugees practically came to a stop in mid-May. “No one is coming in and no one is moving out,” said one civilian official at Camp Pendleton in California. In spite of an optimistic prognosis by a public-relations expert of the marines that “the bottleneck in the pipeline is starting to unglue,” the refugee flow remains slow.
A fourth camp was opened at Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania as an eventual replacement for the camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. “Eglin is strictly a tent city in a swamp area and the heat and mosquitos are excessive in the summer,” a Pentagon representative explained.
One reason for the delay in moving the refugees out of the camps has been the difficulty in finding suitable sponsors and jobs under other than virtual slave-labor conditions.
The main reason for the holdup, however, appears to lie in Washington. Each refugee must get a security clearance from six different government departments – the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. But government officials admit they do not know what they will do with refugees who do not pass the security tests.
“We can’t send them back to Vietnam against their will, but we’re not going to parole release them from government control either,” said a top immigration official May 21.
In the opinion of John Eisenhower, the chairman of Ford’s advisory committee on refugees, many of the Vietnamese may have to spend the rest of their lives in the camps.
The son of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower told an interviewer on CBS news May 23, “There’s going to be a certain number that you’re almost never going to be able to parole, especially the group that came out after the American-sponsored refugees left, that 70,000 people that made their way out on their own on sampans.”
If French colonial experience in Vietnam is anything to go by, Eisenhower may be right. A refugee camp in southern France still houses Vietnamese who fled after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu twenty-one years ago. Like the camps in the United States, it was supposed to be temporary. But 450 of the 31,000 Vietnamese “loyalists” evacuated to France still live there.
The chief crooks of the Thieu gang found no delays or “security” problems in getting released from the camps, however. In fact, they got special treatment. The chief of Saigon’s police and other generals and high officials were released without security clearance or proof of sponsorship after Washington sent special telegrams to camp officials.
An immigration official in Washington, when asked why the prominent officials had received special treatment, replied: “I guess the simplest way to explain it was just because they were prominent officials.”
Other refugees suggested it was because the officials were Thieu intimates especially zealous in the pursuit of political dissidents.
One of the most corrupt and brutal of the whole gang, Lt. Gen. Dang Van Quang, even merited the special intercession of the CIA to secure his speedy release.
Quang, Thieu’s special assistant for military and security affairs, was reputed to be the regime’s chief graft collector. In 1971, NBC-TV quoted “Extremely reliable sources” as saying that he was “the biggest pusher” of heroin in South Vietnam.
Former dictator Nguyen Cao Ky also had no trouble getting out of the camps, in spite of the show he put on to prove he was poor and going through “normal” procedure, “just like anybody else.” He entertained Ford’s wife for the reporters in his “humble palace” at Camp Pendleton, and soon turned up again on the pages of the newspapers pictured at ease in a new Washington residence in keeping with his favored status.
Many other refugees would like to get out of the camps, too. According to news reports, some of the Vietnamese arriving at Eglin “took one look at the military-style camp, its portable chemical toilets and the tuna salad sandwiches on the mess menu and sat down in disgust. ‘They didn’t,’ said one disgruntled businessman, ‘come to America to live like monkeys in a forest.’“
Many refugees have made a sober assessment of what they are in for in America and now want to go back to Vietnam. Washington first estimated that about 150 Vietnamese wanted to return; then the figure was upped to 1,000. By May 27 reports in the New York Times indicated that as many as 3,000 persons on Guam alone wanted to go home.
Staff members of the Senate subcommittee on refugees investigated the refugee program in Guam, the Philippines, and California. Senator Edward Kennedy, the committee’s chairman, said that the later refugees were mostly farmers, fishermen, local tradesmen, and soldiers.
“Few speak English and fewer still comprehend the implication of their plight as refugees,” he said. “In fact, many of the refugees fled in panic from conflict and violence – as Vietnamese have fled for years – not fully understanding where they are or why they got there.”
He said the staff members found that for “personal” reasons “many may wish to seek repatriation to their native land.” They estimated this figure could reach the thousands.
Some refugees have threatened demonstrations if they are not returned to Vietnam quickly. A representative of a group of 107 Vietnamese at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas said he decided to go back home when he learned that the new Saigon government had promised that returning refugees would not be killed.
“Your GIs in Vietnam wanted to go back to the United States. We want to go back to our country,” he said.